About Culture – Atengenoba Festival
Around 100 days after Easter an ancient festival called “Atengenoba” (Georgian: ათენგენობა) takes place in villages in Tusheti (Georgian: თუშეთი), an isolated mountainous region in the north east of Georgia where life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
Although the Tush are Christian, their culture has retained elements of Georgia’s pre-Christian beliefs and pagan practices still persist. Each village in Tusheti is associated with a local god, although now often called a saint. The summer festivals dedicated to the various gods have helped to keep the old traditions alive.
Aside from the festivals, evidence of the old religion can be found in the form of stone shrines known as khatis, adorned with the horns of sacrificed sheep. Some have a bell placed next to them that is rung to mark the beginning of the Atengenoba festival. The recess visible in the shrine in the picture is for candles.
Each khati is dedicated to a local saint (formerly a deity). Several are dedicated to a ‘black’ St George (associated with the local god Ashara) and a ‘white’ St George. They are sometimes fenced off or have a stone wall around them. Women are not permitted to approach the shrines. Female visitors should respect this important aspect of the Tushetian culture.
Each village has its own approach to the Atengenoba festival proceedings but there are several common practices. A “Shulta” (Georgian: შულტა) is elected by the villagers to host and coordinate the celebration. Part of the preparations involve brewing of sacred beer in large cauldrons and preparation of food in a special beer hut (Georgian: სალუდე). Men do this as women are not permitted to enter the beer hut.
Sheep that have been donated by families in the village are taken to the khati shrine and slaughtered. Small strips of white cloth are tied between the sacrificial sheep’s horns as a sign of their having been consecrated. The sheep’s blood is then splashed onto the khati and a prayer is said. The men attending the ritual slaughter cry ‘aludi’ three times as a chorus. The sheep are then skinned and prepared for cooking.
A person called a “Khelosani” is responsible for ensuring that all the ceremonies are carried out properly. He makes an offering of sacred beer to the deity/saint of the khati shrine and brings out a sacred banner/flag (Georgian ბაირაღი), blesses it with a cry of ‘aludi’, and rings bells to announce the beginning of the festival. In some villages the banner is taken to the khati shrine where it spends the night. If the person carrying the banner reaches the shrine without stopping, his village will have good luck for the following year. The banner is taken back to the village the next morning and the festival begins.
On festival days men and women eat separately. Any visitor who enters the village during the festival will be invited to eat. The festival is a joyous occasion and if you are fortunate to be invited you will undoubtedly have an amazing time, though if you try to keep up with the toasts you may not remember very much – especially if you drink chacha (twice-distilled grape brandy)!
A “tamada” (toastmaster) proposes toasts to the shrine, to God, to those who wanted to come but could not, to Georgia, to those who brought sacrifices and offerings to the shrine and lit candles and prayed, to the Shulta, to ancestors, to “the four-legged” (animals). All must drink and are expected to drain their glasses. Toasts to the memory of the deceased (Georgian: შესანდობარი) must be drunk standing up as a mark of respect.
The festivities might include traditional horse races called “doghi” (Georgian: დოღი) and, if you happen to be in the village of Shenako, you might see the ritual of throwing son-less men over a wall!
At the end of the festivities Khinkali (Georgian dumplings), made from the meat of the sacrificed sheep, is eaten. The tradition of eating fatty khinkali the day after the feast is not only due to the need to finish the meat of the sacrificed sheep – it apparently helps to counteract the inevitable ‘hangover’!
In future posts we will share more of the ancient traditions and culture of Georgia’s mountain people.